I was probably six or seven when I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Prosposil for a week-and-a-half over the summer. What, you’ve never heard of that country? You know, I’m not surprised. Most of my memories of the place have faded into snippets of senses in the thirty years since I visited. My aunt making dinner with this meat that was pink and sweet and I have never been able to find since. The music playing over the radio that was both atonal and melodic at the same time. The smell of my uncle’s cigar smoke filling the tiny apartment with its rich scent that stuck in the nose even after a shower. It was all so foreign and yet so comforting at the same time. What I remember the most, though, what still is burnt into my memory decades later, what I cannot escape even with therapy and alcohol and all the rest of what I’ve used to pollute my body…what I cannot forget are the thick black curtains over all the windows.
I asked my aunt what they were for when I first got there. She had been chattering away in a language I could never quite pin down but went silent when I asked. With her wide, happy face now like a mask of stone, she grabbed me by the arm and sat me down at the rickety dinner table. I remember how sticky the table was and how she took my hands in hers and held tight as she stared at me. Her eyes were sad and scared and wide. I had never seen an adult look like that before and something deep inside me twisted just a little.
Haltingly, she spoke in her broken English in one of only a few times she did so during my visit. She told me that the windows stayed covered. Always. Especially now, during the time of some holiday, the name of which has somehow been sandblasted away from my memory. I asked her why, but she refused to say. Instead, she repeated that they had to stay closed and that I was to listen to any instructions that came over a loudspeaker and do as they said immediately, without asking questions. The tone of her voice, her use of English (which was always difficult for her), and the look on her face all told me that my curiosity would not be welcome in this respect.
She asked me if I understood and I nodded. As if nothing had happened, she let go of my hands, her face brightened, and she began talking happily again as she busied herself around the kitchen. Being a kid, I forgot about the strangeness of the situation and explored the apartment, finding toys in a closet. They had been my cousin’s from years past and my aunt seemed happy to see them being played with again. When my uncle came home, he gave me a big hug, swallowing me up in his huge arms, and sat on the floor to play cars with me. That’s stuck with me too. This big man, who must have been tired from a long day at work, sitting on the floor with his nephew to play pretend. I think that’s love.
The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. My uncle would go to work, my aunt would make me breakfast, and then we’d go out and explore the city. She would point out historical landmarks, we’d get lunch, I’d run around a playground, and just enjoy being in a new place. I found out later that my parents were having problems and wanted to work them out without me around, which is why they sent me to visit, but it was a lovely trip all things considered.
Until Friday afternoon.
We had finished our lunch at one of the little cafes near the apartment. It was a cute little place, with a few tables inside and a few out on the patio area. The place was open to the air outside and the smell of fresh bread and other dishes permeated the area. It was one of my aunt’s favorites and she had spent much of it chatting to one of the waitresses there. I didn’t mind, since the lady was pretty in a way I hadn’t seen before and I never went through the whole ‘cooties’ stage where I didn’t like girls. As I was half-heartedly eating my lunch and trying to avoid being caught staring at the waitress, a noise ripped through the idle chat from somewhere on the street. It was loud and harsh and serious-sounding. All the conversation in the restaurant stopped immediately as everyone turned to look and listen to the announcement. Everyone walking outside did the same. One word kept being repeated over and over, though I didn’t know what it meant.
I was about to ask my aunt what it meant when she stood up, picked me up in her arms without a moment’s hesitation, and literally carried me across the street, up the stairs, and into the apartment. She did not stop, though I know I was heavy for her. As soon as we entered the apartment, she let me go, slammed the door shut, turned every lock on the door (of which there were many), and placed a heavy wooden beam diagonally across the door, bracing it underneath the door handle.
I started to ask what was going on, but she shooed me into the tiny bedroom. From under the bed, she pulled out a blanket that looked like it was of the same material and color of the curtains. She pointed at the floor and told me to lie down. I did so and she tossed the blanket over me. It was heavy and hot and stank of old feelings. I started to fuss around in there but my aunt shushed me loudly and told me to stay still. I waited and waited and waited. After what felt like an eternity, I was restless enough to try to get up. As I started, the world around me shook. It wasn’t an earthquake – I had been in enough of those in California with my parents. No, this was more like…
I laid back down on the ground and waited. Finally, the siren from outside came back on and announced what was likely an ‘all-clear’. When it did, my aunt pulled the blanket off of me and gave me a hug. It was tight and warm and just what I needed. I didn’t ask what that was. I knew she wouldn’t tell me. This whole sequence of events repeated over the next couple days. A nice day out, the alarm went up, we ran home, got covered, and were patient as the world shook around us. It became a routine. It wasn’t fun but it was tolerable.
I almost got used to it until Monday.
My aunt had gone to visit a friend north of the city. My uncle had the day off of work so he was going to stay with me and teach me how to carve wood and maybe even go fishing. However, after my aunt had been gone about an hour, my uncle’s work called and told him that there had been an accident and he needed to come in to help with clean-up. He protested that he was home, but they must have either threatened him or bribed him, because he apologized to me, threw on his work clothes, told me he would be back soon, and that I was to lock everything until he called and said he was on his way home. I agreed and he left and then I was finally alone.
True to my age, I didn’t do much with it except to eat far more cookies than I was supposed to and watch TV instead of reading a book. Still, it was liberating in a small way to be on my own. I felt so grown-up!
Then the alarm went off. This one was louder. Scarier somehow. The same warnings I had learned by now seemed to be more intense and the word being repeated came with a frantic tone to it.
My immediate response was to run to the bed, pull out the blanket, and crawl under it, but I paused. The fabric, thick and heavy in my hands, was there and available for me at any time, but what other chance would I have to see what was happening? I was a curious kid. Too curious. There’s a saying about death and cats and curiosity that definitely applied here. So, instead of crawling until the safety of the blanket as usual, I waited. I wanted to peek through the curtains, just a little, to see what the imberuna really was. What everyone was so afraid of. I had watched scary movies before. How could this be any different?
The phone rang and I went to answer it. It was my aunt and she was extremely unhappy to hear me pick up. She asked where my uncle was and I told her. She was even more unhappy to hear that I was alone and demanded that I lock everything up, though it all was, and put the brace on the door before going under the blanket. I told her I would and she said that she would be home as soon as the danger passed. She hung up and, while I did put the brace and locks in place, I instead sat down on the couch and waited.
When the rumbling began, I felt the urge to dive under the blanket but forced myself to creep forward to the window and crack the curtains just a millimeter to see what exactly it was that terrified people so much. As I peered through the thin seam I had made, I saw…something. You know, it’s funny in a way. I don’t remember what I saw. I don’t remember color or texture or anything like that. All I recall is the bone-deep fear that took me. All I recall is the inhuman screech whatever it was made. All I recall is the rattling at the door immediately after. The howling and banging as the door shook with impact. The slow, creeping shadow sliding underneath, slithering across the floor, crawling up my leg inch by inch. The cold, cold, deathly cold that began to leak into my skin. The words coming unbidden to my head, something telling me to go with it. To join them. I felt my legs moving of their own accord, dragging me to the door. I tried to fight. I couldn’t.
Then, I heard a gunshot. Two. Three. More. The gentle whispering in my head increased in volume until it was screaming at me. No more gentle words. Loud, obscene, profane. All demanding tribute from me. I felt the grip loosen and I pulled away, though the shadow left a permanent mark on the skin of my leg. Every time I look down and see the puckered, withered, discolored flesh, I am reminded of how lucky I was. One last gunshot, this one louder, and the shadow shrieked and disappeared. I stumbled back and hit the wall hard, which knocked one of the paintings down. It landed and the glass cracked and somehow that allowed me to cry.
My uncle and aunt arrived at the same time about ten minutes later. They heard me crying and begged me to open the door. I removed the brace with as much strength as my little body could manage and unlocked the door and fell into their waiting arms. Through my terrified tears, I could only vaguely see smears of some brown-black liquid all over the landing and trailing down the stairs. One of the neighbors, Otto, apparently explained what had happened, though I barely understood any of it. All I know is the aftermath.
The military came through. There were gunshots throughout the night. My aunt and uncle were furious and yelled at me in both English and their own language. I deserved all of it. The next day, I was put on a plane back to America and that was that. I never saw either of them again and my memories of that sad, strange land only exist in stories. I’ve talked to my mom and dad about my aunt and uncle and they have both been confused. They insist over and over that they were both only children. That no country or trip ever existed. I don’t believe they’re lying to me. I can recognize lies and they are genuine in their confusion.
What happened? I cannot explain because I don’t know. I don’t think I ever will. All I can tell you is my life since that day.
It's been thirty years. I’ve been married and divorced three times, though I haven’t had any kids. I don’t think it’s fair to subject them to my nights, of which there are many. I cry in my sleep. I writhe. At first, they are sympathetic. Then, it turns to pity. Soon, it becomes a chore, then an obligation, and then, inevitably, it becomes nothing more than too much and I am alone again.
On late nights, dark nights, the nights where there is no stars and moon to be seen, I hear the voice calling to me. My leg begins to ache and burn and I will look down on it and, for just a moment, I will see a hungry hand grasping it, probing it, looking for a way inside me. I shut my eyes tight and say my prayers and take a drink of whatever I have at hand and usually, hopefully, eventually it all fades away.
I keep my windows, all of them, covered with thick black fabric. I have learned my lesson. I don’t know that imberuna, whatever it or they are, live in this country, but I have opted to be safer than sorry. Tonight, though, I feel lucky. I’m going to leave the curtains open, just a crack. I will be ready.
Why would I do this to myself? Why would I put myself at risk? Simple. See, what it doesn’t know is what I know. I found the plane ticket the other day. I know it’s all real.
And I know that shotguns can kill it.
Nobody says a word to me as the SUV rattles along the dirt road. I can tell it’s dirt because the clouds of dust being kicked up are staining the windows a neat little sepia tone. Despite the rattling and the three guards holding shotguns – two sitting next to me, one in the front passenger seat – I am determined to enjoy this ride. Even riding bitch is a luxury when you’ve been in prison for ten years with another forty ahead of you. I let myself sink, as best I can, into the cool leather and savor the feeling of human clothes on my body. Jeans with an actual belt, a button-down flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath, tennis shoes with laces. For a moment, it feels like I am a person again.
Not like the all the trash in prison. The jumpsuits that were both too baggy and too tight, especially in the dick region. The shivs tucked uncomfortably into socks, the blades lightly jabbing your ankle, thirsting for the blood of a kidney or liver. The dealing and bargaining for perks and avoiding punishments. Go stab this guy. Don’t touch that guy. Here’s a new fish for you. Do drugs. Don’t do drugs. Why aren’t you doing drugs like I told you? I thought I told you to stay away from drugs! Beatings. Beatings. Beatings. This guard is a prick. That guard is a weasel. That big guy is nice but don’t say a word about his family or he will break your jaw. Fight for your brownie at lunch. Get your ass kicked but get respect. Get more respect when they learn what you’re in for. Fight off ambitious little pricks trying to make a name off of you.
It had only been a couple of days since I sent one of said pricks to the hospital after breaking literally every one of his ribs after he tried to slip a sharpened toothbrush between my shoulder blades after lunch. I figured that someone was going to come give me a talk since let’s just say that it wasn’t the first such incident I’d been a part of in my time in the clink. Still, it caught me off-guard when the warden himself came by my cell with a weedy little guy in a too-big sport coat. Well, and six guards loaded for bear, so that was comforting in a weird, familiar way.
“Afternoon, Myles,” the warden said, that corny-ass country boy drawl elongating the vowels, “Heard you got yourself into a bit of a tussle the other day.”
“Business as usual, Warden.”
“Sure. Well, this gentleman next to me is Dr. Seibert and he’s got a proposition for you that’d probably benefit everyone.”
“Go ahead and talk,” I said as I sat down on my bed. The doctor stepped forward and cleared his throat. I smirked since I was pretty damn sure he was intimidated by me, though I couldn’t blame him. I was a big guy before I got sent away and in the decade since, all I’d done is work out. Throw in a couple prison tattoos, shaved head, and nice, thick mustache and I was one scary sumbitch.
“Mr. Myles. The good warden has informed me of the nature of your past and continuing incidents, the accumulation of which will likely see you perish in this place.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I’ve made my peace with it.”
“What if you didn’t have to?”
That got my attention. I hadn’t been lying. I had long since accepted that I wasn’t going to see the world outside again. With what I had done and what I did to those other inmates, the world was better off with me in here and, frankly, I was better off not having to deal with whatever crap lay out there. This guy, though…he was offering me a chance.
“What do you mean?”
“I am with the government, though not in any department you would have heard of even if you were not incarcerated. We have, in the last few years, purchased several properties around the state in order to more closely study some interesting geological formations located below them, all of which seem to connect to one another via some tunnels deep in the earth. You don’t need to know details, but there are certain minerals down there that we have been unable to identify from sight alone. Your task would be simple: enter the formations, retrieve some samples, and return to the surface. Now, in exchange for your cooperation, we have brokered an agreement with the good warden and the legal system. If you were to accept and complete the mission successfully, you would have 95% of your remaining sentence mitigated, with the remaining 5% being eligible to be served under house arrest. To expedite the math, that would remove 38 of the 40 remaining years of your sentence entirely and provide you only two years at home. In other words, Mr. Myles, you would essentially be a free man in two years. More or less.”
“Two years. You do know what I did, right?”
“Yes. That poor family. However, science sometimes requires the, let’s say, intentional overlooking of certain unpleasant truths in order to find something greater. While I’m sure we could have an edifying conversation on guilt and retribution and justice and all that, we are on, strictly speaking, a time limit.”
“You are not the first convict we have enlisted, and my superiors are growing impatient with the investments we have made without result. The sooner we get moving, the better. So, Mr. Myles, are you in or are you not?”
That question had only come yesterday and now here I am, in the middle of nowhere Texas, driving to what was described to me as an abandoned homestead. Everyone is edgy, except for me. I figure that whatever wild goose chase they have me on is still going to be preferable to the retribution I’m facing for the whole hospitalizing the kid thing. He is or was a part of one of the nastier gangs that I usually tried to avoid. Whatever. They fed me pretty well on the drive, so I’m not complaining.
Eventually, we pull up in front of a broken-down house and I’m ushered out with multiple guns pointed at my head. Overkill, I think, since I’ve seen the damage just one of those can do with even a glancing shot. I’m not gonna run, but it’s cute to see them believe I have the stones for that.
Seibert’s at the front entrance, looking at his watch. As soon as he sees us, he rushes forward, takes me by the arm, and hurries me inside. The interior of the house is, if anything, in even worse shape than the outside appeared. Boards and dust are everywhere, the walls are covered with scrawled numbers and other words I don’t recognize, and there’s a feeling that this place died years ago but just hasn’t had the good damn grace to collapse yet. I can understand Seibert’s desire to get things going quickly. It’d be a nice setback if this place turned into splinters while they were doing their work.
I’m looking around as Seibert throws me a backpack. It’s heavy and I move to open it but he stops me. I look at him and I can see him shrink back just a little. Thank goodness for being intimidating.
“My apologies, Mr. Myles, but there is no need to open the pack at this time. We have provided you standard supplies. Food and water to last a week, though you should not need that amount of time. A hammer to retrieve the samples and a solid lead box in which to place them. We have also provided you a…firearm, should that be required. You can understand my reticence to expose that information.”
“Yeah, I bet they’d be pissed to learn you’re giving a violent criminal a weapon, huh? Don’t worry, Doc. Your secret’s safe with me. I get a rope or anything?”
“Yes,” he says, clearly relieved that I’m going to squeal on him, “It’s over by the hole and has already been attached. If you’re ready, we can adjourn to that.”
He motions for me to follow him and I do. The floor creaks and cracks and sounds altogether really damn unstable. I almost feel more comfortable with the idea of going into the ground than I do standing on the wood. That is, I do until I see the hole.
It is ragged. Sharp. It doesn’t look like a carefully excavated entrance into the lower levels of the planet. It looks like a chunk has been ripped out of it. Almost like a bite. I stop and I hear Seibert sigh without even looking back at me.
“Mr. Myles, may I remind you that you readily accepted this task?”
“Just…took me a bit off-guard, that’s all. I’m fine.”
“Good. If you would come over here, we’ll get you fully kitted out.”
I don’t want him thinking I’m some kind of crying bitch, so I walk over, even though the bottom of my stomach is howling something fierce at the intense blackness of the hole only feet from me. I can’t help but stare at it as they attach all sorts of things to me. A belt that wraps around my waist a few times. Thick leather gloves tied to my wrists. A helmet that’s more like one I used to wear while on my bike than a mining helmet. LED lights all over on straps and a big one across my chest. For a sick moment, it feels like I’m bait rather than an explorer. That feeling soon passes in favor of a seizing fear as the belt is attached to a thick iron cord from a reel that appears to completely fill the next room.
“You will be tethered with this cable. We have literal miles available to us, so do not concern yourself with being cautious in your exploration. Once you hit the bottom, tap your chest to turn on the lights. Do you have any questions?”
“Three. One, what am I looking for down there? Two, do I have to worry about something attacking me? Three, can I tap out now and just serve my sentence?”
Seibert laughs, but it isn’t full of amusement.
“The answer to all three, Mr. Myles, is that you will know when you see. Down you go.”
Before I can argue, Seibert shoves me – actually shoves me – into the hole. I feel myself drop into nothingness as the scream of the cable spooling out echoes around the stone. I descend for what feels like hours but has to only be a few minutes because why in the hell would this take actual hours? Finally, with a thud, I feel my feet hit something solid and I stop the drop. As instructed, I thump my chest and the lights all over my body blaze into active status.
It looks like a cave, to be honest. I’ve been in enough in my pre-prison life and this one doesn’t appear to be much different. The walls are a little more uniform than I expect, but other than that, it’s just a cave. Looking behind me to see only more stone, it appears like this particular tunnel goes only one way – forward. I would say fortune favors the brave but, come on, this isn’t fortunate.
I walk for a while. A long while. This time it probably is hours. Occasionally, I sit down, take a drink of water, eat one of the snacks they gave me, rest a bit, and then get up and do it all over again. Rinse, repeat, over and over until I don’t know how far I’ve gone or for how long. I’m about ready to give up when I see something around the curve. Something glowing.
Making my way over there, I turn the corner and nearly go blind. This room, almost a cavern, is filled with glowing, iridescent, impossibly-bright blue crystals. From floor to ceiling, these crystals sparkle and illuminate everything around them. It’s stunning in the most literal sense of the word.
Without thinking, I touch the nearest crystal. I don’t have the gloves on because they were making my hands sweat. That was a bad idea. As soon as my hand connects with the stone, a surge of electric pain races up my arm and into my veins. I yell. The echo bounces off the crystals with a musical ting, over and over again, to the point that it almost sounds like the room is laughing at me.
I can’t move my hand. Every pulse of energy makes me nearly pass out. I grab my wrist and try to pull myself free. My skin stretches. My fingers stretch. I’m moving away but my hand itself is still stuck. With as much strength as I can muster, I yank myself from the crystal. Something gives and I tumble to the ground. When I look at my arm, I can scarcely believe my eyes.
My fingers are elongated and warped, almost like those of a bat within its wings. It feels the same, but it is most certainly not. I scramble back in terror and run into another crystal, this time against my back. The same surge of pain envelops me, worse this time, and I have to rip myself free before it gets more agonizing. I feel something stretch, something tear, and I don’t want to look. I can feel the spike of skin on my back where none used to exist.
To hell with this. Prison is at least understandable. I get up to run, turn around, and am stopped. In front of me now is something hideous. Something I can’t recognize. It’s large, white, and fleshy and it has four arms, all grasping the walls, all preventing me from moving. It shrieks and its mouth opens and a wet, black tongue runs hungrily over a load of jagged yellow teeth.
I almost forget myself, but then I remember the gun in my bag. I reach in, frantic, and feel the heavy steel against my head. I tear it from the bag and hear fabric rip in protest. Without thinking, I flip the safety off and pray that this damn thing is loaded. It is.
The chamber rings painfully as I fire shot after shot into what I can only assume is the face of this bastard. Bullets gash the creature and it stumbles back, howling. I pull the trigger again and again and again until it goes click. I can’t imagine that they gave me a second magazine, so I let the gun clatter to the ground. I hope this thing is dead. It has to be. It’s not.
It is still braced against the walls, whimpering and muttering, but alive. Something about it looks strange, though. I mean, beyond the whole appearance. Something in its mouth. Barely understanding what I’m doing, I walk over to it. It can’t move so I don’t worry that it’s going to hurt me anymore. With a shoe, I push its mouth open. Instead of the hungry darkness I expect to see, there’s a rip there. Yes, a rip in the darkness. Inside the rip, I see colors. Light.
I don’t know why I do what I do next. I reach in and pull the rip open further. It looks like a room. A room? How? My arm goes in and I see it inside the room. My other arm goes in. I put my feet in and climb inside. It feels right somehow.
I’m in a room now and I regret what I’ve done. The carpet of the room is a dull gray, worn from years of use. The wood paneling on the walls is dirty and a generic painting hangs limply from the right wall. Old lights dangle from the ceiling and a sconce near the painting. Across the room, a couch, cream-colored and dusty, waits for me, flanked by a clearly-dead plant. Finally, a white panel blocks my view from anything else. What is this place? What am I doing here? I hear a voice behind me. I don’t want to turn. I turn.
Who are you? Wait, what…? No, don’t! NO! You-
The remains of Marcus Myles were retrieved in September of 2018 from the caves beneath Langdon Homestead in central Texas. Details of his demise remain unclear, but he was clutching the attached photograph in what remained of his hand. The fact that he did not enter the caverns with photographic equipment will continue to exist as a mystery. Recommend no further exploration of the caves. We’ve lost enough time. Move to Plan C. – Dr. Carl Seibert
The Sound of Silence
There is a room that actually exists called an anechoic chamber located in a laboratory in Minneapolis. In this room, there is no sound due to the way the room is constructed. When a person sits in the room, the door is shut and the timer begins to see how long they can last. In the room, a person will become unsettled then discomfited then paranoid. The person will begin to hallucinate sounds and even sights. The absence of sound is so uncomfortable that the brain will manifest something – anything – to break the quiet. The longest someone has ever spent in this room is 45 minutes.
The longest they will talk about, that is.
See, there was a research assistant in the early days of the chamber, when it was first constructed. One night, he was working late and testing out the walls to make sure they were solid. He had only been in the room for a couple minutes and, by all accounts, was uncomfortable about being in there at all. Something about it spooked him and his colleagues would tease him mercilessly. Anyway, nobody knows exactly what happened or how, but he ended up trapped in the room.
When the scientists got there the next morning, they noticed the door was shut and locked, which ran counter to the safety protocols in place. Upon prying open the door, they immediately called the police. The only reports made listed what happened as simply an accident and were buried under paperwork. Too much money had been invested in the labs to allow a mistake to derail what they were doing.
However, one scientist wrote down what she had seen and the imagery is horrific. She described the room being painted with blood from where the man had bitten open his own veins. Words and words and words all over. He had written about how he could hear the blood moving through him and how it needed to get out. He had written about how he was seeing things lurking in the corners of the room and hearing their scratching at our world. One particularly awful passage described what these creatures were saying to him. Dark thoughts. Terrible thoughts. Thoughts that had been buried within his memory with the intent never to return. They knew them all and made him write them down using his own blood.
The scientist described how the man had torn apart his own face and ears in an attempt to, ironically, quiet the voices. By the time they found him, he was essentially in pieces. The poor man had been quite insane by the end.
Some things don’t make sense, though. How did he get trapped? The door opened and locked from the inside. He should have been able to leave any time he wanted, but he didn’t. He was apparently in Hell, but he didn’t leave, which begs one question:
What is out in our world that is worse than what he was experiencing?
Where The Streets Have No Name
I have no idea where I am. This isn’t your standard ‘took a wrong turn somewhere’ lost either. I didn’t listen to a broken GPS. I didn’t even just go into a new city where I have no clue where anything is located. I mean that I don’t know if I’m even in reality anymore.
I should explain. It did start out as being simply lost. I was going to visit my aunt in a different city and I went down the wrong road. Ended up at a little gas station in the middle of nowhere. Everything around me was choked with trees and I definitely was nowhere near where I needed to be. So, I stopped. I went in and the lady at the desk was friendly enough. I explained my problem and she seemed sympathetic, so she gave me some directions. I needed to keep going straight, then turn right at the third road, then take that all the way into the city. She was pretty insistent that I stick with the third road and, at the time, I didn’t exactly know why.
I do now. I screwed it up. I was singing along with my radio and realized I hadn’t been paying attention to the roads. So, when the next road came up, I turned. I assumed it was the third road. After all, how many roads could there be?
I drove down that until the sun started to set and I grew a little worried. Did I take a wrong turn? About when I was thinking of turning around, though, I saw lights in the distance like a beacon. I had made it! Ten minutes later, I was no longer down a dark country road, but in a city with tall buildings and brilliant lights. It was comforting.
I turned on my GPS to get me the rest of the way and that’s when things went wrong. The GPS didn’t say anything. Well, it did, but it sounded like gibberish. Like the voice had some serious interference going on. In either case, it was useless.
Time to call my aunt. I picked up my phone, despite knowing that I could get in some trouble for using it while driving, and dialed her number. I recoiled as I put it to my ear, as there was just a loud, metallic screeching instead of a dial tone. That wasn’t good.
Resolving to ask for directions at the next opportunity, I continued to drive. Nothing looked familiar. Not just in the sense that I hadn’t been there before, but in the sense of things appeared wrong. Too many windows or too few. Maybe a color that didn’t belong. And I saw nobody walking around. Or driving around. It was night, yeah, but the place looked deserted aside from the lights blaring everywhere.
I’ve been driving for days now. My gas hasn’t changed. I want to pull over but something stops me.
What happens when this place realizes I’m lost?
Shadows of the Night
The old joke about someone being afraid of their own shadow didn’t make a whole lot of sense to Francis. It was supposed to intimate that someone was overly jittery or jumpy and needed to, in a way, ‘sack up’ and grow some spine. It just didn’t resonate, though. For Francis, his shadow was the most terrifying thing in the world. He had gone base jumping and skydiving and even run into a building to save a kid from a fire that one time. He didn’t consider himself to be a frightened person. It’s just that his shadow wanted him dead.
Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate. It was that all shadows wanted him dead. It just so happened that his shadow was the tip of the spear, in a way.
It hadn’t been obvious to Francis at first. Just little things happened at the outset. He would trip over nothing except his shadow. He would walk past walls and hear a loud scraping. When he would turn to look, his name had been hacked into the brick. Sunny days were basically an invitation for him to slam into things without knowing it. He started to yearn for the overcast and the rainy days. Those days he would be free to go about his business.
It was night time, though, where the pranks would turn malicious. He would wake up in the middle of the night to see shadows dancing on the ceiling, twirling and shifting in ways that did not match the light coming from outside. They would slide down the walls, collecting the darkness, before slithering onto the bed. The weight they held could be painful and he frequently found himself waking up from an uneasy sleep in the morning with bruises and welts from where he had been loaded down with darkness.
Still, in all those moments, the pain was superficial and didn’t last long. It was annoying and concerning, but nothing more than that. It was when the shadows graduated, in a sense, to more dangerous antics that Francis really became worried.
The first time he was awakened by a searing pain in his arm, he thought he was having a heart attack. It was only when he flipped the light on and saw the seam of blood slowly expanding from where he had been cut that he realized differently. From that point on, he tried to avoid being in shadow as much as he could. It was silly, he knew, but he had no other explanation for what had been happening.
Turns out, shadows don’t like being ignored. Many of his bones have been broken and he’s covered from head to toe with gouges and slices. He looks like he’s been in a train wreck most mornings, but he still tries to ignore it all. He hopes it will go away.
Tonight, though, he will not be able to ignore the shadows.
Tonight, his throat is exposed.
Tonight, the shadows will swarm and collect their due.
The Final Countdown
10. Settle into the seat. Put the belt on. Get ready for liftoff. This is easy. This is the easy part. They’re going to take care of everything. You don’t need to worry about numbers or switches or dials or anything like that. That’s the crew’s problem. All you need to do is sit back and relax and sooner than you think, space is right there, waiting for you to plunge into it.
9. The crew is whispering. It’s nothing to worry about. Nothing to get concerned over. They just have something they need to talk about without the passengers knowing. It could be only a minor issue, but people need to believe that things are going off without a hitch. You understand, of course. Nothing can be perfect and you didn’t go into this whole thing expecting perfection. Still, the worry etched into the lines on their faces is a little discomfiting, but it’s probably nothing.
8. They’re arguing now. Not loudly but loud enough for you to hear them. Granted, you’re eavesdropping, but they aren’t being all that quiet. You can only hear snippets of what they’re saying. Scaled. Giant. Food. None of the words sound nice to you, but you’re taking them out of context, so they’re probably nothing to worry about. Isn’t the seat comfortable?
7. Yelling now. They don’t seem to care who hears. The phrase ‘suicide mission’ is pretty common and the cute little rationalizations you had been making disappear. It’s tougher to ignore what they’re saying now and it’s clearly an issue happening. Is something wrong? What is going on?
6. A fistfight has broken out. What in the absolute hell is happening? This isn’t according to plan anymore. There’s no way. You try to remove your belt, but it’s locked. You are trapped.
5. You don’t want to but you start to panic. You’re strapped in to something that has no intention of letting you go. Your struggles are starting to draw attention from the other passengers. Good! They should be worried as much as you are. Are they not seeing and hearing what is happening?
4. Panic is seeping through the passengers now. They see your flailing. They see the fight. Something is wrong and people are struggling and screaming to get out of their chairs. They can’t. Whatever this is cannot be stopped.
3. The engines start to rumble as the ship prepares to take flight. You howl in frustration.
2. The ship launches. Your body compresses as the ship hurtles through the air, punches through the atmosphere, and slides into the deep, dark nothing of space.
1. You’re not alone. Something is out there. You can see it through the window. Well, you can see parts of it. The crew wasn’t wrong. It has scales. It’s dark and rippling. And it is very, very big.
0. The ship rattles as something halts its progress. The lights have gone now and everything is screams and swearing.
You see teeth close.
Saturday in the Park
The cliché of it all was almost sickening. The sun was shining. There was a cool breeze breaking the heat of summer. Birds were fluttering around, chirping and singing. Children played on swingsets and monkey bars while parents watched and talked and flipped through their phones. Couples went for runs bargained for by the more active partner. Dogs ran around and tumbled in the grass. It was idyllic and annoyingly perfect.
Then it all changed.
It was like a bomb had gone off, but nothing exploded. Instead, the park itself and everything in it simply changed into a new form. Warped. Mutilated. Shifted into some grotesque mockery of existence. It was pure horror.
Birds plunged to the ground, bursting on impact, sending feathers and blood spraying across the grass. Trees launched their branches like missiles. Hurtling through the air like jagged javelins, the wood would slam into anything it met and shatter into shrapnel. The grass itself would even twist and corkscrew into literal blades.
Legs burst from dogs’ sides in random numbers. Some got one. Some got two. Some got four. One poor beagle got seventeen and could only whimper helplessly as the legs skittered and flailed. A couple caught mid-jump had rudimentary wings rip from their spines and carry them, howling, off into the sky toward parts unknown.
Children on the swingsets found themselves fused to their seats as the chains broke and they hurtled to the ground. They tried to stand but the chains whirled and snapped like new appendages, slicing and gashing everyone around. They would get tangled with one another and pull until something tore with a wet rip. Those kids on the monkey bars could only scream in horror as they twisted and wrapped around the bars like warm taffy being stretched. Those on the climbing dome felt their limbs twine in and out of the holes, extending to impossible lengths. Those kids unlucky enough to be on the woodchips were swallowed by a yawning mouth, their shrieks of fear disappearing into the earth below.
Those running found themselves unable to stop. They had to continue to run, even as muscles split and bones cracked and blood started to run. Even if they fainted, their legs would churn and drive them around and around and around the park, utterly out of control of their own bodies. Parents were not spared either. Heads turned and were pulled and stretched into inhuman angles. Mouths opened wider and wider until they turned into puppets. Cell phones surged with electricity, flash-frying those wielding the instruments of their own demise.
And then it was over. Everything was back to normal. Nobody remembered the horror that had occurred. The park went back to how it had been.
In the background, far away from what had been the chaos, the scientists sniffed and wrote down notes on their clipboards. Moderate success. No lasting side effects on subjects. Seems ineffective as an interrogation tool. Repeat experiment with increased intensity.
Next trial starts.
Black cats are bad luck. Don’t walk under ladders. Don’t open umbrellas indoors. Don’t break a mirror. Throw salt over your left shoulder when you spill. Common sense. Easy to learn. Easy to maintain. Keep you safe. But those are basic. Simple for a reason. They do the minimum required to keep things out of your home and out of your life. Minimum, though. Other things, smarter things, they can slip in unnoticed if you’re not careful. That’s why you have to be careful and do more.
Salt spread in the doorways. Ash mixed with blood smeared above doors and windows. Sleeping with your bed pushed up tight against the wall so that you can only be approached from one direction. Those are better. Those are smarter and can fool the majority of the creepy-crawlies that would enter your home and take from you that which you value most. The majority doesn’t mean all, though, and the real danger still lurks, waiting for you to make a mistake. You can’t make a mistake. You don’t want to do that.
You have to be smarter than that. You have to take extra precautions so that they don’t get you and they will get you if you don’t. Sharp wire mesh over the windows so anything trying to get in will either cut itself and bleed or has to cut through the mesh, which makes noise. Broken glass spread over the floor. Wait, that only stops those things that walk. What if it floats? Stupid! Damn it. Try again. Glass on the floor AND tied to strings dangling from the ceiling. Better. That covers both of those bases. It doesn’t account for incorporeal things, but we’ll get there. Fans blowing cold, wet air should help in that case. Rig up a system to blast holy water through the fans to get the air nice and damp. That should do it.
People may come to check up, but ignore them. The really smart ones, well, they can take the form of people you love. It could be your partner or your mom or your work friend, but you can’t trust that any of them aren’t either possessed or an actual disguise being worn by the smartest ones. Don’t let them in. Refuse them entry. They can’t get past the door if you don’t open it and if they push through it, the glass should stop them.
If they get in, somehow, you don’t have much recourse. Go for the stake and go for the heart. You should be able to catch them off-guard and you only need one chance. Make it count. Drive it in as deep as you can and ignore their screaming. It’s a lie. It’s all a lie. You have to keep yourself safe and sometimes that means killing.
Above all else, though, do not let anyone try to confuse you. They’ll say you’re sick and need help, but they just want to make you easy prey.
Don’t let them.
Heat of the Moment
I’m not one for going to clubs. Too loud and cramped. Too full of people searching to try to find some desperate semblance of human connection. When my friend Mark, though, decides he wants a bachelor party at the most exclusive club in town, I suck up my discomfort for the night. I throw on my best clothes and hop in the limo with them. Before I know it, we are at the front of the club and then somehow, miraculously, ushered through the doors like VIPs. Whoever booked this night must have paid up because it sure as hell wasn’t me.
Inside the place is about what I expect. Thumping music so loud it makes my molars rattle. People smashing together and retreating like a human wave. The smell of liquor and cologne is almost overpowering, but I push through it as I follow the group to the table. We have the best seat in the house and I feel a little jealous that I can’t be as good a friend to Mark as whoever is in charge of tonight. A shot of tequila gets rid of that jealousy right quick.
Another shot. Another shot. Another shot. Another shot.
After enough alcohol is in me, I don’t feel anything except the throbbing music and a numbed contentment. I’m here, I’m with my friend, and I’m being open. As if on cue, I look to the floor and there she is. Tall, beautiful, fiery hair, red and black dress that lands above the knee, and moving like water in a stream to the sound of the music. I let my glance linger a little too long and my friends immediately jump on it. They practically shove me away from the table and demand I ask her to dance. Were I not so infused with liquor, I would refuse but that sense of anxiety is dulled to nothingness. I stand up, take one more shot, and make my way to the floor.
The crowd seems to part as I approach her, heart pounding in rhythm with the beat of the music. For a second, I pause, but she turns and sees me and her eyes – melted gold – lock with mine and she grabs my hand and pulls me into her. My hands latch to her hips like magnets as she drapes her arms around my neck. I can feel her heat and my senses flare.
It’s later now. How much later, I don’t know. We’re in the alley and she’s kissing me and I’m kissing her and my head is in a tailspin. Her fingers are grazing the back of my head and I’m tingling. Her nails are sharp. Were they sharp before? She’s nipping at my neck and I shiver. No, she’s not nipping now. She’s biting. Hard. My energy changes to fear. I try to pull away but she holds me tight.
Teeth like railroad spikes sink into my veins and things go black.
I wasn’t one for clubs.
Welcome to the Jungle
When ego overrides common sense, abandon hope all ye who follow the path. Dr. Bennett was no exception. When his research team was given permission, via some favors and several thousand dollars, to enter the Amazon and conduct experiments on the local wildlife, he was ecstatic. Finally a chance to carve out a real name for himself! He was determined not to stop until he found something that was world-changing.
The journey did not start out on an auspicious note. Some of their equipment was ‘delayed’ at customs until the proper financial recompense was produced. One of his assistants slipped down a hill and shattered her ankle, leaving her to be airlifted away. Two of their local guides refused to go past a certain point, babbling something about spirits. He didn’t particularly care. There would always be guides willing to help them.
To his surprise, after they hacked through countless vines and branches, the team came across an open clearing. This wasn’t something that had been created by other researchers or construction workers or even those who would sneak in to steal treasures and trees and animals. This appeared to be a natural occurrence. How fascinating!
The replacement guides, however, felt differently. They dropped their packs, turned around, and ran as quickly as they could back the path that had been created. Despite Dr. Bennett yelling at them to come back, they had disappeared within moments. What cowardice, he thought as he began to unpack. In his excitement, he did not notice the discomfort from the rest of his team.
That night, as he settled down in his tent, Dr. Bennett tried to listen to the sounds of the jungle around him to soothe him into sleep. He strained his ears but there was nothing. No rustling of night creatures hunting for food. No flapping of wings from bats or birds. The world around him was completely silent. It was unsettling and, for the first time, Dr. Bennett felt the sting of uncertainty right at the nape of his neck.
That wasn’t uncertainty. Something had stung him. He felt the spot begin to burn and then fire raced down his body, making every nerve howl in agony. He tried to scream but, to his horror, he realized he couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He was frozen stiff, locked into a pulsing, blazing pain.
A monstrous BOOM from outside rattled in his ears and then his tent was pulled off of him. Towering above him was some THING. Matted gray hair, glittering green eyes. It was something he had never seen before. In any other moment, he would have been jumping with joy. Now, though, he could only stay immovable as the beast reached down and wrapped a hand around him, lifting him into the air.
As he ascended, Dr. Bennett could see the destruction of his camp and the blood caked around the beast’s mouth. For just a second, he felt deep regret.
And then there was a CRUNCH.
Here is where I''ll post random stories that aren't, as of yet, in a larger book. Call it a free ride into the mouth of madness, yo.